A funny thing happened between the fourth and fifth performance of a
triumphant "Tristan und Isolde" in the War Memorial, where Christine
Brewer's mighty voice fills the 3,200-seat opera house evening after
evening. Tonight, Brewer sang Harold Arlen's take on overwhelming love,
"come rain or come shine."
The place: the living room of the Victorian Englander House. The occasion:
the San Francisco Song Festival's Artist Salon. The impact of Brewer
"singing to you" quietly across a few yards' distance: unforgettable.
"Happy together, unhappy together," she sang, "You're gonna love me,
like nobody's loved me," and we did.
Just as she sings Isolde's killer role with a voice that flows from her
naturally, inexorably, she sang the Johnny Mercer text in Arlen's simple,
appealing harmonies from the heart, without a smidgen of artifice.
Her "St. Louis Woman" set was a natural, Brewer said, coming from (and
still living in) a small town on the Mississippi River. She sang gospel,
blues, and jazz, didn't become aware of opera until after 19. When
somebody suggested voice lessons to her, she felt hurt, thinking that
lessons are to remedy if something is wrong with the voice. Trained as
a music teacher, she taught in schools until her career took her from a
town of 500 to the world's metropolises. The small-town connection came
up in her encore, "Mira," from Bob Merrill's "Carnival" - which sounded
as true and convincing as did everything else from her tonight. "Can
you imagine that?"
The other two Arlen songs were the often-neglected "I Wonder What Became
Of Me?," in the evening's most affecting performance, and "I Had Myself
A True Love."
The entire event, "Playing Favorites," meant to allow singers to perform
music of special significance to them, turned out to be favoring cross-overs
from traditional lieder. New music was in evidence as Marnie Breckenridge
sang a Jake Heggie song, Valentina Osinski went to Joni Mitchell for
inspiration, Brian Leerhuber brought down the house with the Cole Porter
"Day and Nights," in an interpretation as if "from the diary of a stalker."
Elza van den Heever sang a song from her native South Africa, SF Opera
Center director Sheri Greenawald favored Barber and Stephen Foster, Brian
Thorsett sang from a Victorian songbook - appropriate for the venue.
Steven Bailey, the accompanist, switched effortlessly from period to
period, genre to genre.
Bruce Rockwell's three-year-old organization is dedicated to the "revival
of interest in the art song," but as the conductor John Kendall Bailey,
the MC, pointed out, "in this country, the lines between art song and
popular music often blur." They certainly did at this event, delightfully.
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